Phuketwan Trial Opens in Thailand

By BenarNews Staff
2015.07.14
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150714-TH-phuketwan-620 Phuketwan.com suspended publishing as the defamation trial of editors Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison (pictured top-right) got underway, July 14, 2015.
BenarNews

The defamation trial of two journalists whose website published an excerpt of a report implicating Thai navy personnel in human trafficking opened in Phuket on Tuesday, amid international calls for Thailand’s junta to drop the case.

The trial of Phuketwan.com editors Chutima Sidasathian, a Thai national, and Alan Morison, an Australian, is taking place at Phuket Provincial Court in southern Thailand and is expected to last three days.

In a case brought by the Royal Thai Navy, the two defendants stand accused of criminal defamation and violating the country’s Computer Crime Act of 2007, which prohibits publication or circulation of content seen as detrimental to national security.

If convicted of both charges, Chutima and Morison could each face up to seven years in prison and fines totaling 300,000 baht (U.S. $8,815), according to the Associated Press.

Troublesome paragraph

The two got into trouble with the navy because of a paragraph in an article published on the Phuketwan site in July 2013. The paragraph came from an investigative piece by Reuters news agency into human trafficking in Southeast Asia.

''A Reuters investigation, based on interviews with people smugglers and more than two dozen survivors of boat voyages, reveals how some Thai naval security forces work systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya,'' the excerpt read.

The paragraph appeared in a report that was part of a series by Reuters on the persecution and trafficking of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. The series earned the news agency a Pulitzer Prize last year.

According to testimony given by the trial’s opening witness, Thai Navy Capt. Pallop Komalodaka, the navy also filed a lawsuit against Reuters but the case is still with the prosecutor’s office, pending further action, AP reported.

Reuters didn’t cover Tuesday’s trial opening in Phuket.

“We had asked them to hold a press conference to apologize publicly for the article, but they said they would only express regrets. Therefore, a deal wasn’t struck,” AP quoted Pallop as testifying about Phuketwan.

Despite its small size the English-language Phuketwan has reported consistently on the human trafficking issue in southern Thailand. The Phuket-based website is still online but its editors announced that they would suspend publication while they stood trial.

"We do not understand why the military government has not withdrawn the case,” Morison told Agence France-Presse before the trial started.

"The initial pursuits against Reuters were dropped. We quote exactly the same paragraph ... (They are pursuing us) for only one paragraph reproduced word-to-word from Reuters."

After the trial adjourned for the day on Tuesday, Chutima expressed confidence that the court would clear her and Morison of the charges, according to AFP. Both defendants are expected to testify on Wednesday and a verdict in the trial is expected within a month, AFP reported.

‘Report at your own risk’

As the trial got under way, the United Nations and human rights advocates urged the Thai government to dismiss the charges against Morison and Chutima.

In Bangkok, the U.N. Human Rights Office for South-East Asia said it was “highly concerned” with the Thai government’s decision to allow the Phuketwan case to go to trial.

“As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Thailand has the obligation to uphold the right to freedom of expression (article 19) …,” the office said in a statement.

“Freedom of the press, including freedom for journalists to operate without fear of reprisals, is essential in promoting transparency and accountability on issues of public interest.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a U.S.-based rights advocacy group, expressed solidarity with the two defendants.

"The fact that these two journalists are even on trial is a scathing indictment of the Thai government's unwillingness to respect media freedom and clear indicator of how far and fast the environment for free expression has deteriorated under military rule,” HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement issued to news outlets.

“Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth [Chan-o-cha] should have ordered the Navy to stand down and withdraw the charges – but instead he effectively endorsed their effort to gag media critics, and in doing so, administered another body blow to what little remains of Thailand's international rights reputation,” Robertson added.

“The real message of this trial to Thailand's journalists is report at your own risk because big brother in Bangkok is watching ….”

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